Pre-Visualization, VFX Experts Create Surreal World for Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’

Doctor Strange
Courtesy of Disney

Doctor Stephen Strange, a Marvel Comics character conceived in the ’60s, is the latest hero to step into Marvel’s cinematic universe. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch in “Doctor Strange,” he’s a talented neurosurgeon whose career is in ruins after his hands get mangled in a car crash. Seeking a remedy, he travels to the Himalayan community of Kamar-Taj, home to wizards and magicians. There, he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a healer who teaches him the mystic arts and paths to alternative dimensions, which Strange decides to use to battle the forces of evil. To create the rich visuals of the film, director Scott Derrickson looked at photographs, films, and paintings, as well as the original work of comic-book artist Steve Ditko, a creator of Spider-Man as well as Dr. Strange.

During pre-production, Derrickson worked closely with production designer Charles Wood and visual-effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti to conceptualize the magic — not just on a mythic level, but on a scientific one as well — and the varied worlds Strange would travel.

Through concept art and storyboarding, they quickly realized that simply illustrating the film’s dynamic environments before shooting would not be an adequate enough road map, and that they would have to rely on pre-visualization software (pre-vis) to shape sequences in detail. “We were doing a lot of research and development,” says Ceretti. “Scott would take the pre-vis back to writers so they could incorporate [those elements] into the script. It became a kind of dynamic feedback between the storytelling and visual storytelling.”

A big challenge was finding the right balance between narrative and visuals.

“Pretty much anything can be done with visual effects if you have enough time and money, but not everything should be done,” says Ceretti. “We didn’t want to lose track of the story, so we only used effects that pushed things forward.”

Pre-visualization also became indispensable when working with the actors. Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast would look at concepts regularly to help deliver performances as the tale navigated from one reality to another — and into worlds of two, three, and four dimensions. →

In one sequence, Strange is pushed out of his body and transported onto the astral plane, passing by a kaleidoscope of colors and mind-bending imagery.

“In production we called it the Magical Mystery Tour,” says cinematographer Ben Davis. “Strange is traveling through all these different places. It starts off in Earth’s outer atmosphere and gets weirder and weirder.”

To shoot the sequence, Davis strapped Cumberbatch by his waist to the end of a robotic arm that could orientate him in any direction. The camera was then put on a motion-control rig, and four 20’ x 20’ movable light fixtures were built that projected images onto the actor. “It was similar to what DP [Emmanuel Lubezki] did in ‘Gravity,’ but we updated it and used a different light source,” Davis says.

It took 10 months for Wood and his team to build the Sanctum Sanctorum, the Doctor’s fortress home, from which he battles evil. “The one thing I know about Charles is that with every detail there will be no effort spared,” says Davis, who used the large-format Arri Alexa 65 camera to capture all the details of Wood’s designs. “The Sanctum was built over multiple sets, and everywhere I pointed my camera I had something good to look at.”

For the final action scene, which takes place in the streets of Hong Kong, an enormous set was built in London.

“That was a very complex set with a very dynamic environment,” says Ceretti. “There are a lot of elements moving backward while the characters push forward. We had to do a lot of simulation work, and we had to be very clear on what could be destroyed and what we could rebuild.”

Davis relied on pre-visualization to block the sequence, with each moment requiring a different camera technique.

“The great thing was that Scott came into everything very prepared,” says the DP of the director. “He had a clear idea of what he wanted in a scene, and what he wanted with the actors. It made supporting his vision that much easier.”